This paper begins by describing the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as recorded in the two Pali chronicles, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa. Their general approach treats the introduction of Buddhism into the island as a royal package sent by the Emperor Asoka to his Sri Lankan ally Devanampiya Tissa, through the former's son and daughter, Mahinda and Sanghamitta. Buddhism was immediately accepted as the state religion, thus linking it with the destiny of the Sinhala people.

This pattern is not, however, supported by the only extant category of Buddhist archaeological remains from this period ‐ over 1,000 Buddhist cave‐dwellings. It is clear from their dedicatory inscriptions that they were constructed by patrons bearing high royal titles about whom the chronicles are remarkably silent.

By drawing from studies of modern forest‐dwelling monks, it is possible to identify more fully the processes at work and to identify the discrepancy between the two records. It is argued that the first monks attracted political patronage by virtue of their ascetic discipline and soon became one of the vehicles for competition between localized political organizations. As this competition ended, a single high king ruling a loose political federation emerged, with the formerly ascetic monastery communities as wealthy feudal landlords; both were increasingly interdependent. This relationship led to the creation of a foundation myth forever cementing the interests of the legitimate rulers with the survival and patronage of Buddhism.